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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

This week's Mailbag brings something old and something new.

The new stuff involves lots of e-mails that amount to pre-emptive strikes by viewers on both sides of a tough and touchy decision that faces the PBS Board of Directors next month. On June 16, the Board will vote on how its member stations' long-standing commitment to provide non-commercial, non-partisan and non-sectarian educational programming should be interpreted when it comes to clearly religious broadcasts by stations.

A detailed report on the choice facing the Board appeared on April 13 in Current, the bi-weekly trade newspaper about public television and radio. But it was a follow-up article in The Washington Post about the issue on May 16 that appears to have attracted wider public attention. More recently, several other news organizations have written about the controversy.

At the moment, this would affect only a small number of stations — about five out of some 356 member stations. But the issues are large. On one hand, there is separation of church and state that, as many viewers express it, is absolutely central to our democracy. On the other, there are special programs and services that have been provided to communities by some stations for many years. For example, WHUT, the PBS member station at Howard University in Washington, D.C., has been broadcasting "Mass for Shut-Ins" on Sundays for 13 years. The station has already notified the Archdiocese of Washington that it could cancel the program depending upon the Board's action.

But there are also less benign examples. I stumbled across this tricky issue for the first time more than two years ago during a controversy involving a Harlingen, Texas, station, KMBH, which is licensed to an educational non-profit and managed by the local Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. Viewers complained of censorship because the station did not broadcast a major Frontline program that dealt with victimization of a young boy and his family caught up in the sexual molestation scandal within the Archdiocese of Boston.

The non-sectarian requirement has been in PBS membership bylaws since 1985 but hasn't been enforced strictly. The Board is now seeking comment from its member stations on this issue that will help frame what, exactly, the Board will vote on, and some PBS officials believe that what may emerge from that response will be a discussion about how best to serve communities yet stay within the confines of the bylaws.

There was one more "new" item in recent days. A number of people wrote to say, as one viewer from Covina, Calif., put it, that they were "outraged that the NewsHour tonight [May 21] gave so much air time to Dick Cheney. I am sure that the time given his speech was more than was given to President Obama. Voters repudiated Cheney's party and the policies, and he is out of office. It is irresponsible of PBS to give his hateful, fear-mongering views this attention."

Here's what Linda Winslow, executive producer of the NewsHour, had to say in response:

"Our President Obama excerpt ran 5:07 minutes. Our former Vice President Cheney excerpt ran 4:38. We aired both because they were directly addressing the points the other has made recently. To have aired only one speech and ignored the other would have been a dereliction of our duty to report the news of the day. The fact that Cheney waited until the President finished speaking dictated the order in which we ran the segments. The package, in its entirety, is what we call 'news': something important that happened today."

I agree with the NewsHour's news judgment. It was the same as virtually every major TV and print news outlet that I looked at. Today's Washington Post ran a banner headline: "In Dueling Speeches, a National Security Debate." The Wall Street Journal's front-page headline said: "Obama and Cheney Face Off Over the Fight Against Terrorism."

The "old" issue I mentioned at the top is not very old. It involves viewer response to Wednesday's column about the five-part PBS documentary series on the American Indian, "We Shall Remain."

Here are the letters:

Don't Cut Religious Programming

I have read that PBS is reviewing our local station KBYU and the possibility exists that it may lose its PBS affiliation because it broadcasts religious programs. In a world where faith, values and anything good is being shunned this type of action seems counter intuitive to me. I have supported PBS and purchased programs but if this indicates your direction you will lose any future support from me. I encourage you to reconsider this action.

Clair Oman, Ogden, UT

(Ombudsman's Note: KBYU-TV is associated with the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The university and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the sponsoring institutions.)

I just read that PBS may be punishing affiliates that have religious programming, such as BYUTV and others. If this happens, I will no longer listen to or watch any of your productions. I will also encourage anyone I know to do the same. Please reconsider your decisions on this matter.

Robert Rokes, Riverside, CA

Before you think I'm a religious idiot PLEASE just finish reading this. I am not a religious zealot or anything like it. I found out that PBS is either considering or planning to remove some stations from PBS because of religious aired programming. This is ignorant! To accept someone who has scientific views about any field of research but not to accept a religious viewed person is bias. What are you teaching children? Religion is bad but science is your unbiased friend who never does wrong? I am the first to admit that some religions (even many) are hokey or trying to mislead or control people. We see this happen but not all religions do this and some "scientific" minds try to do the same. Until we know everything than anyone on any side of any debate can be just as wrong as the next guy. To teach that it is okay to listen to a scientific argument but not to listen to a religious one . . . How "scientific" is that? I realize this isn't a science/religion debate but PBS is stating that religion isn't something that should not be related to PBS even if paid for separately.

Salt Lake City, UT

I just read that the BYU radio station is likely to lose its PBS affiliation because of some religious content, which is supposedly against PBS's 'non-partisan, non-religious' rules. This is truly laughable! While I enjoy some of PBS content here in southern Nevada, I consider PBS one of THE MOST POLITICALLY BIASED RADIO STATIONS on the air! During the past election, for instance, it was quite clear that PBS was engaged in Obamamania, with no news, and certainly no good news on McCain, Palin, or other candidates. Removing BYU radio will simply serve to prove your bias against all things traditional and pro-American, and you bias for progressive, liberal, anti-traditional-American beliefs and lifestyle.

A. Hall, Henderson, NV

Please, whatever you are doing MUST CONTINUE. I get more informative, multi-religious reporting from PBS than anywhere other than religious specific outlets. NONE of the other major media outlets provide nearly as much in-depth, well-balanced reporting. WHY is this even being debated? Let me repeat — KEEP DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING. It is unbiased, balanced, INFORMATIVE and A FREAKING PUBLIC SERVICE. Thanks and keep up the great work!

Eric Nelson, Fairfax, VA

I recently heard that PBS will be voting to remove support from any station that broadcasts any kind of religious programming. The reason given is to maintain non-partisan, non-sectarian bias. I am appalled. One would think that removing biases is done by exposing more people to what groups believe and think about. I feel that PBS would be encouraging separatism and bigotry by withholding program support to stations who meet the needs in their communities by broadcasting religious programming. I feel strongly enough about this that if PBS withdraws support from these stations, then I will withdraw my support, my viewership, and anything else I have ever had to do with PBS. Perhaps my one little email won't make a huge difference, but it only took a single rock, hitting the right spot for David to take down Goliath — if this is too sectarian for you to understand — look it up in the book that I doubt you want to recognize as having any worth — the BIBLE.

Deborah Jessop, Denver, CO

I recently read an article in our local paper taken from the Washington Post that said that PBS is to vote next month on a committee's recommendation to strip the affiliation of any sectarian content. It went on to say that losing its PBS relationship would mean that a station could no longer broadcast programs that the service distributes from Sesame Street to Frontline. It stated that it could lead to a ban on broadcasts of local church services and other faith oriented programs.

The Mass for Shut Ins is in jeopardy and while I am not Catholic, it concerns me that these kinds of bans on faith based programs would be a sad state of events in this country.
My husband and I are retired teachers. We have taught our students that all freedoms are protected in the United States. With an action like this from PBS, it implies that all freedoms EXCEPT for religious ones will be protected. PBS has offered all kinds of programming. To exclude programs of faith would to us be a national tragedy.

All kinds of garbage are on the air. It's almost impossible to find something to watch that doesn't have coarse language, sexual content and plain old garbage out there. I guess these programs are protected and not church programs?

Cheswick, PA

I just read that PBS will be more strictly enforcing the "secularization" forces in their mandate. Actually, much of the public believes in a God, and one of the values of a public station is to broadcast what people want to see. If that includes programs of worship, that is one of the important programs they are donating to see. Quite frankly, as a disabled person, the idea of removing the "Mass for shut-ins" is more than offensive. This is what some of us can only find on PBS. Only "megachurches" preaching the prosperity gospel can afford to broadcast their message on network television. I think that you should ask those who donate to support PBS what they would prefer. I can give you my vote now. Keep the legacy "Mass for Shut-ins" on the air. Your decision will determine whether I continue to contribute, and I will discuss the idea with those whom I know. It is true, that as a disabled person, I can't give as much as people who can be more directly engaged in society, but I have found that those of us who feel strongly about such issues can make their voices heard. Just consider the outcome of the last election. PBS is not just bound by journalistic integrity; it is also bound by the choices of the public who support them. Democracy is messy, but pluralistic. That includes worship for God in many different ways. If the population near a station wants to watch Mass on PBS, why would you remove that program.

Joan Hanley-Hyde, Rockville, MD

On the Other Hand, There Is This Church-State Separation Thing

I hope that PBS will enforce its long-standing policy of not providing programs to stations who do not respect the separation of church and state. I recently became aware of this situation by reading it in one of the newspapers to which I subscribe. As a long time viewer and donor to PBS, I would like PBS to stand firm on its commitment to the separation policy. Please inform policy-makers of my comment.

Margaret Farley, Needham, MA

PBS can be proud of the high quality journalism and programming it has provided for our country. I know I speak for many when I say "thank you" for your hard work and integrity. I feel compelled to contact PBS over an issue recently reported in the Washington Post titled PBS Weighs Separation of Church & Stations. As an American, I cannot stress enough the need for separation of church and state. While religious elements in our society continue to chip away at the foundation of our majestic constitution, it is imperative that Americans stand strong in opposition to religious threats, whining, and financial coercion.

Please be assured that, while quiet and civil, humanist and rationalist are large in number and strong in spirit and support PBS as it nobly fulfills the mandate it has been given by the United States of America. Please continue to enforce the American tradition of separation of church and state by keeping PBS free of religious content.

Jeffrey R. Cates, Oregon, IL

I encourage PBS to stop broadcasting sectarian programming as recent news stories have indicated is being considered. I look to PBS for objective programming that will serve citizens of all sects and creeds, not just members of specific denominations.

Algonquin, IL

I completely agree that KBYU should be cut because it is an organ of a church that spends a lot of time on devotional programming. When I first moved to Utah I was shocked that a PBS affiliate would program its schedule the way KBYU does. There is an alternative station in our community — KUED — that serves the needs of the PBS viewers broadly. Let KBYU be supported by its church's members not the general public and PBS's sponsors.

Salt Lake City, UT

Taking Aim at AIM (the American Indian Movement)

I agree that this series was very informative. It touched on areas that would spark interest, raise questions and bring into focus the state of Indian Country here in America. I was an active AIM member during the 70's and witnessed first hand how things were. It was the leadership that first brought the truth and focus to light. And it was the leadership that brought shame upon our people when the money and fame went to their heads. The spirit of the American Indian Movement was and continues to be the everyday Native American. We truly believed in what we were doing, bringing about a positive change and justice to right all the wrongs that our ancestors had endured. Today, we want exactly what we wanted then. The sad truth is that the leadership of the past has slipped into the category of those that need to be dealt with through the justice system. Programs like the one that PBS has aired are welcomed by the majority of us in Indian Country. As for the detractors from this wonderful series, they all have their own agendas, each with their own means to gain by trying to shed a bad light on such an outstanding project. Thumbs up from a grandmother who is teaching her grandchildren the truth about our personal history!

M.W., Fullerton, CA

It may be understandable that recent events in the Native American's story would evoke responses, but let's look at the entire series. It was naturally painful and heartbreaking to watch, but long overdue that things should be examined and recorded from their side.

In Hawaii we are similarly confronted by the story of our native population, and only recently has what we all read in our history books been balanced by the actual events of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, as shown on TV. I say — let's continue to be brave enough to absorb all sides of history, and PBS should be commended for helping us to do just that.

Karin Hazelhoff, Kamuela, HI

Thank you for your words and for presenting a comprehensive story. There will always be controversy about this issue. Most times the truth is ignored, on both "sides" of the issue. I am Alaska Native (Kenaitze) and married to a Crow. It is important for our histories to be told to a broader audience and especially for our next generations. And it is especially important to be able to relate multi-faceted viewpoints. Somewhere in the middle is the truth. We need to tell our own stories, in our own words, and instruct our children in how to do that effectively. Thank you for your writing. Please keep it up.

Eagle River, AK

Thank you for opening the door to further discussion about what went on behind the barriers at Wounded Knee. In addition to the Robinson murder, there are other secrets AIM leaders at Wounded Knee are trying to hide. Our concern is that the film "Wounded Knee" has helped them do just that. We have heard from people who were assaulted, chained to beds and interrogated, and raped. We have been told by people who claim to know that as many as half a dozen people were shot to death inside the village during the last desperate days of the occupation. We believe it is only a matter of time before these crimes come to light. To the extent you have enabled the conversation to continue, we appreciate your comments and welcome your support. Perhaps some day there will be another film about Wounded Knee that will tell a far different and much more disturbing story than that which has now taken center stage. Until then, the real story of Wounded Knee must take a back seat to the PBS production and other media treatments of the village's demise.

John Trimbach, Atlanta, GA

Just watched the Wounded Knee episode for the 2nd time. Thought it was excellent.
I could see the revisionist history from Trimbach and all coming. I do think PBS would have been better served by presenting more of Wilson's side by having his supporters interviewed, but I know that opens up a whole can of worms that is not appropriate for this series.

A few observations about Trimbach's letter:

1. I believe the U.S. Government found that Dick Wilson stole the election from Means that Trimbach mentions as proof the Lakota supported Wilson. Convenient memory.

2. The paternalistic tone of much of Trimbach's letter, where he dismisses the concerns of Indians nationally, and in Pine Ridge, is laughable. It would be great if PBS could take a serious look at the so-called "reign of terror" imposed by Wilson before Wounded Knee, but especially after.

3. Especially with respects to the Reign of Terror, I think the film actually is too easy on just how terrible Wilson's regime was to people that did not agree with it.

Doug Shinkle, Denver, CO

As one who was an adult during Wounded Knee '73, it was good to see a portrayal of the events. I was deeply moved and saddened and ashamed how my own government has treated Native Americans. It brought tears of sorrow and sense of deep compassion for all Native Americans who have suffered since 1492. A follow up to what has changed or improved since '73 is important. Thanks for including the segment of the horror of the Indian schools and the relocation stories. New information for many Americans. We all need to examine our conscience how we can begin to right the thousand wrongs perpetrated on our Native Americans.

Richard Roth, Tubac, AZ

Having just watched We Shall Remain: American Experience on Wounded Knee I am having considerable difficulty trying to understand why no mention whatever was made of Leonard Peltier who, I understand, still is imprisoned in a federal penitentiary for a crime he allegedly committed at Wounded Knee but from all that I can read he was convicted by an all-white jury and even the FBI admits he did not commit the crime for which he was charged. Why wasn't this obvious miscarriage of justice not referenced in a film on Wounded Knee? This appears to be gross neglect and another egregious injustice committed against an innocent Native American, something I am surprised and disappointed by from PBS.

Charles Silas, Mason, MI

I'm a California Indigenous person of Esselen decent and I would like to compliment PBS on their series on "Native American Indians." It is very important to us Indigenous people that the truth gets out to the American people of the loss of our Heritage, Pride and Dignity. Also I believe that your series also shows of how we are still fighting to protect what we have left.

Roots Rosales, Monterey, CA

Thanks for covering this issue. I don't know about other journalists or bloggers, but I'm covering it in my Newspaper Rock blog.

Rob Schmidt, Culver City, CA

In my personal opinion, Native American History is something that has lacked coverage. American Experience brought something to the table that others have not. Though certain individuals would like to dispute the accuracy or authenticity of "We Shall Remain," American Experience has opened our eyes to parts of history that have been pushed into the shadows. If these individuals really think that their story has not been told in a fair and just manner, there are many avenues that they may take to dispute them. I have always been interested in the Lakota Nation and American Experience's coverage on the Siege of Wounded Knee was another exciting and informative study in Lakota History.

Seth M. Ward, Indianapolis, IN

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